It was a big week here in Charleston, because of the activities commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The various events and ceremonies have been on the national news on a daily basis. According to my mother, who lives in Boston, you’d think that the entire population of Charleston had taken the week off from work, dressed up as re-enactors and camped out in tents out at Fort Sumter. To be honest, I missed the whole thing. It’s National Poetry month, and I’ve been in various places doing poetry readings and teaching workshops. I was hired, however, by The National Park Service, to be the Poet-In-Residence at Fort Moultrie this spring. A series of writing workshops have been offered to school children; as well as, public programs with an emphasis on the history of Africans who were brought to Sullivan’s Island and held there in quarantine in “pest houses” before they were brought to Charleston to be sold at auction. According to my friend, Park Ranger Carlin Timmons, “Slave ships brought an estimated 200–360 thousand men, women and children into Charleston until the international slave trade was abolished in 1808. Some captives served quarantine, but how many Middle Passage survivors set foot on Sullivan’s Island is unknown. Some historians claim that over one third of the African American population has ancestors who were held under quarantine on Sullivan’s Island.”
The educational programs are connected to my children’s book Shackles, which is based on a true story, describing what happened when my sons dug up a set of slave shackles in our backyard when we lived on Sullivan’s Island. The book was written for the children of South Carolina, who often don’t know the saddest part of our history and are shocked to hear the sordid details, just as my sons were shocked on that summer day years ago that they were dressed as pirates and digging for buried treasure in our backyard.
The poet-in-residence program has brought busloads of Charleston school children to learn about the history of the Africans who were held in the “pest houses” on Sullivan’s Island. Many of the children have never been to Sullivan’s Island. Some of them have never seen the ocean, and a large number of them do not know about the history of slavery in South Carolina. After a short tour of the fort guided by Carlin Timmons, and a tour of the African Passages exhibit, the children gathered in the auditorium where they wrote persona poems. I asked them to use their imaginations and write a poem in the voice of an African during the Middle Passage. A third grader named Randi Davis, from Mary Ford Elementary School in North Charleston imagined being chained below the deck of a the slave ship but still being able to see the sky through a window. She wrote the following poem in less than five minutes:
I hear screaming
And taste the pain.
I smell the clouds
And touch the rain,
But all I could see
Hundreds of students wrote persona poems and read them in the auditorium, but Randi’s poem stands out and embodies everything I was trying to teach the students about using their senses when they write a poem. Some of the students have written thank you notes on construction paper. One student wrote: “One thing I’ll always remember is that history is all around us.” Another wrote: “Now I now, that slavery was here in Charleston.” Another commented on the great view! A couple of students made a set of slave shackles out of green construction paper, which resemble those cut-out paper chains my children used to make for the Christmas tree. It has been an amazing experience, and I wish that we could bring hundred more school children out to Sullivan’s Island to think about this often neglected part of our history and honor the memory of all the Africans who came here.
If every American could come to Sullivan’s Island and sit quietly on the bench that Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison had installed facing the Inter-Coastal Waterway and remember what happened to all the Africans who did not survive The Middle Passage, all those who are buried on Sullivan’s Island, and those who were sold into slavery; I believe we would be better off as a people. This hole in our historical memory that has only recently been acknowledged is like an unhealed wound that still festers. When she installed the “Bench By The Road” Ms. Morrison said, “It’s never too late to honor the dead. It’s never too late to applaud the living who do them honor.”
There is no one who understands and articulates this wound better than my friend Edward Ball, descendant of slave owner Elias Ball II and author of Slaves in the Family. He was in South Carolina this week giving a series of talks throughout the state. On Friday, NBC News was here filming Edward with Thomalind Martin-Polite, a school teacher from North Charleston. When Edward was writing Slaves in the Family, he found a paper trail leading to Ms. Martin-Polite, who is a descendant of a young girl captured off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1756, brought to Charleston on the slave ship Hare, and purchased by Elias Ball who took her to his plantation on The Cooper River where she was renamed Priscilla. In 2005 Ms. Martin-Polite traveled to Sierra Leone with her husband Antawn where they were embraced and celebrated. It is an amazing story on many levels, one that the school children who came on the field trips found particularly interesting. The idea that a teacher from their home town could find her African descendant and then return to her homeland is a kind of miracle.
On Tuesday, Edward’s eloquent editorial “An American Tragedy” appeared on the Op-ed page of The New York Times. He describes the paradox of the way we choose to remember and commemorate The Civil War and the complicated ways we try to make sense of it. His unique understanding of the way we all struggle to find meaning in our complicated history is the best explanation of this conundrum I have seen thus far:
We cannot come to terms with the Civil War because it presents us with an unacceptable kind of self-knowledge. We think, as Americans, that we possess a heroic past, and we like to think of our history as one of progress and the spread of freedom, even transcendence. But the Civil War tells us that we possess a tragic history instead, over which we must continually paste a mask of hope….Americans don’t wish to occupy a landscape of sorrow….
Please come to Fort Moultrie for a community reading featuring Erik Calonius, author of The Wanderer and poets Marjory Wentworth and Ed Madden. Saturday April 30th from 4-6 PM
And so, I post this prose poem, written some time ago:
The Re-interment Parade
Charleston, SC 1999
Inspired by a photograph taken by Lauren Preller Chambers
If it weren’t for the parked cars and sunburned tourists lining the cracked sidewalks, you might guess a Civil War movie was being filmed on this cobblestone street. Iron black crosses pressed into gray stone walls straighten the earthquake bent foundations. Beneath flickering gaslights, houses with sagging porches that face the sea lean toward each other as if time has blended wood and paint and glass into a permanent wound.
The Confederate Carriage Company carries coffins covered in mourning ribbons. Women dressed as widows walk silently behind, wearing short black veils, capes, and hoop skirts. They do not turn toward the crowd as they follow a soldier high on a horse, carrying a new Confederate flag. Marching toward the graveyard now, there’s nowhere else to go. Some of them carry damp white handkerchiefs in their gloved hands. Some clutch a family Bible. Others hold photographs lined with crushed crimson velvet. They are grim faced and stoic, a little proud. Their great, great grandmothers might have lived through the war. Women who lived so long in terror that they always expected the worst. Women who were sure, Sherman would burn Charleston to the ground; and steal everything, everything. They dressed in layers, with two petticoats hiding beneath their dresses, and jewelry sewn into the layer closest to their skin. They were women who had lost their husbands and their fathers, their brothers and their uncles. In the end all they had was one another.
The re-enactors march away from the sea. Beyond the seawall lies the harbor where the sailing ships brought Africans in chains. A few streets inland is the market where slaves were sold; the parade will not pass by there.